Talking Justice: Fighting Hate in the Age of Trump

On January 27, just a week after his inauguration, President Donald Trump announced he was suspending all entry to the United States to passport holders from seven predominantly Muslim countries, and to all refugees fleeing the horrors of war in Syria.

The move provoked immediate protests and fears that the anti-Muslim and isolationist views of the new administration are fueling a rising tide of intolerance in America—intolerance that manifests itself in insults, prejudice, and acts of violence directed not just at Muslim Americans and migrants, but at anyone perceived to be different.

From the white supremacist shootings at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, that killed nine in the summer of 2015, to the murder of six worshippers at mosque in Quebec, Canada, just last month, the risks of failing to stop this evil are painfully plain.

In this episode of Talking Justice, we ask what’s being done to stand up to and fight back against intolerance. Host Jim Goldston of the Open Society Justice Initiative talks to Michael Lieberman of the Anti-Defamation League, and Amardeep Singh, who works on our own recently announced antihate initiative.

Learn More


Show transcript 


Hello, and welcome to Talking Justice, the podcast that focuses on compelling stories from around the world about law, justice and human rights. This edition is all about the United States. You remember the land of liberty, the open door, the lady with the torch. Boy, does that seem like ancient history.

For in its very first days, the administration of Donald Trump has showed itself, not just willing, but eager to enshrine in policy some of the most extremist strains of the president’s hate-filled, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant rhetoric. And this is provoking both fear and resistance—


(CHANTING) This is what America looks like. Show me what America looks like. This is what America looks like. Show me what America looks like. This is what America looks like. Show me what America looks like—


The new rules are stunning in their overreach and in their demonstration that America, once a (CHANTING PROTESTS) home for the globe’s oppressed, is pulling up the drawbridge.


I’m here to support immigrants, refugees, anyone who’s feeling ostracized by the Trump administration. (CHEERING) My brother just married into a Pakistani-Muslim family. So I have family at stake now, so (PROTEST SOUNDS) I’m here for unity and equality and representation—


I’m here (CHEERING) to stand with our Muslim brothers and sisters under all circumstances and to say, “No,” to Trump’s policies.


It was during the election campaign when Donald Trump called for, quote, “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” on the false assumption that Muslims as a group are potential terrorists who present a threat to national security. At the same time, the president has doubled down on his pledge to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico.

He’s accused undocumented Latino migrants of being, quote, “criminals and rapists.” At the New York protests, speakers warned that this kind of rhetoric can put members of all minority communities at risk just because of the way they look or the color of their skin or the clothes they wear, even when they work for the New York City Police Department.


New at 6:30, (TV NOISE) another apparent hate crime against Muslims in New York City, this one targeting a hero NYPD officer and her son.


In 2014, N.Y.P.D. officer, Alm Elsokary was lauded for her bravery after saving a grandmother and her one-year-old granddaughter from a Williamsburg, Brooklyn fire. Now, she finds herself in the middle of a hate crime investigated. Police say on Saturday night, Elsokary and her 16-year-old son were attacked in this Bay Ridge, Brooklyn neighborhood because of their Muslim faith.


Sadly, this attack in December was only one in a spike of hate incidents in the immediate aftermath of last November’s presidential election. There is no consistent and effective national measure of the level of these crimes that specifically target someone because of their ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or other aspect of their identity.



(IN PROGRESS) —Say (CHANTING) it loud. Say it clear. Refugees are welcome here. Say it loud. Say it clear. Refugees are welcome here. Say it loud. Say it clear. Refugees are welcome here. Say it loud. Say it clear. Refugees are welcome here. Say it loud. Say it clear. Refu—


The Open Society Foundations is one of the organizations that is trying to combat the hate crime phenomenon. At the end of November, we announced a $10 million funding initiative. I went to see Amardeep Singh, one of the Open Society staff leading this project, to find out more. And he started by telling me about the business of collecting the numbers to get a clear picture of what is going on.


There are many efforts in the U.S. to document hate. What sort of makes this effort stand out is that we’ll be providing support to, at minimum so far, ten identity based national organizations around the country to, not only document on a common webform on all their websites, but then to take those incidents and aggregate them.

And that’s the verb I’d center on. And so for the first time, we’ll see a group called “Holla (PH) Back” which documents street-level harassment of women working hand-in-hand in aggregating their data with the Transgender Law Center who’s working with Muslim Advocates, who’s working with Color of Change, which works with the black community. You can’t make the case that a problem exists that needs to be solved without documenting it in some way.


And what else are you trying to do?


Second, it’s not enough to just document. You need some means of addressing. And so we’ll be providing a grant to Lawyer’s Committee on Civil Rights Under the Law to provide legal services and also connection to social services for survivors of aid incidents. So sure, the groups will be collecting information from their communities about what’s happening, but they’ll also, where appropriate, be offering legal resources.

We’ll be providing grants to local community groups in a very open-ended way saying, “What do you think you need to do to solve hate in your community?” We’re making grants to organizations in South Dakota, in Idaho, essentially all over the country, asking people, “What do you think needs to be done to address these issues?”

Let me just give you two quick examples. So for example, in New York, we’ll be supporting an organization that will literally take survivors of hate crimes and walk them to the police precinct to file a report, take them to the prosecutor’s office, will take victims of school bullying to the school principal and walk with communities that might feel fearful of working with authorities.

Another grant will support the creation of a hate crimes beat at a small community paper in New Mexico. And as part of that sort of beat, the reporters will go ahead and track a hate crime case from beginning to end to get a real sense of how the state is responding.

So it’s really open-ended and can—another quick example, we’ll be supporting an inter-faith network in South Dakota that’ll be a very quick action, rapid response network of rabbis and priests who are willing to stand up whenever there’s a hate incident and say, “This is wrong. This is, you know, morally wrong and stands against the values of people from South Dakota.”



As Hanukah draws to a close, a possible hate crime targeting a family in Chandler. Someone think the menorah in their front yard and twisted it into a swastika. 


In California, a suspected hate crime outside a mosque in Simi Valley. Now, police say John Matteson confronted worshipers outside the mosque. And after a verbal altercation, he stabbed a man. Police say the victim was targeted because of his religion. 


A woman caught on camera in the early morning areas vandalizing the Islamic center in Davis and leaving bacon on the door, an insult to Muslims who don’t eat pork.


There are, of course, many organizations in the United States deeply concerned that the current political climate is fueling violence, discrimination, and prejudice. One of them, the Anti-Defamation League, has been on this beat for more than a century. Founded in 1913, the ADL fights anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry, defends democratic ideals, and protects civil rights for everyone.

The ADL could be said to have written the legal book on hate crimes in America. The organization wrote the first model hate crime statute back in 1981. It helped lead efforts to enact and implement the Hate Crimes Statistics Act of 1990. And it helped secure the enactment of the Hate Crime Prevention Act of 2009. I’m joined on the phone now, from Washington DC by Michael Lieberman, who’s the ADL’s top lawyer. Michael, thanks for joining us.


Thanks for the opportunity.


When you talk about hate crimes, Michael, how do we distinguish what we’re talking about from just, “I don’t like you,” feelings of prejudice or even speech that, you know, in this country, traditionally people have been free to say?


So that’s an incredibly important distinction to be able to make. The United States does free speech differently than every other country on Earth that we think of as free. Every other country, like Britain, Belgium, Canada, Australia, Germany, France, all of them have hate-speech laws, where at one point on the spectrum or another, group defamation, Holocaust denial, some hate speech is criminalized.

The United States does not do that. In the United States, even the most hateful speech is protected under the First Amendment. And the idea is that when you cross the line from speech into conduct, like if you write on the side of a synagogue, “Hitler was right, but did not kill enough Jews,” and you punctuate it with a swastika, that’s not free speech anymore. You could think it. You could set up a website that says, “Hitler was right.” You could walk around on a public sidewalk or public street with a sign that says, “Hitler was right.”

But when you buy spray paint and spray it on the side of a synagogue, that’s speech plus conduct and that’s how every federal and state hate crime law works. Conduct plus speech that indicates that you have intentionally selected the victim because of race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin. It’s the intentional selection for discrimination, for violence, for vandalism that makes it a hate crime.


ADL has a long, long history with these issues. Can you tell us a bit about what you have been doing since the election in respect of hate crimes?


Right, so the election has context. It didn’t just happen on November 8th that there was an uptick in hate crimes. We were tracking intolerance speech, homophobic speech, Islamophobic speech, racist speech throughout the entire election campaign.

Much of it came from the president at the time when he was running his campaign. He was either inattentive to it or supportive. It’s impossible to know what’s in someone’s heart, but there’s absolutely no doubt that during the course of the campaign, ethnic, racial, religious divisions were exacerbated. And we have seen, post-election, hundreds of incidents that have occurred, some kind of triumphalism.

We’ve seen swastikas and the word, “Trump.” We’ve seen noose and word, “Trump.” We’ve seen racist incidents connected with the president. And we think that it’s incredibly important for the president and for elected officials to be leading the charge against racism, against anti-Semitism, against homophobia, against Islamophobia. And the bully pulpit, the response from the government leaders, is an incredibly important deterrent.

Crimes are one thing. Enforcement of hate crime laws is very important. But it’s so much better to prevent them in the first place, rather than adding to the population of our jails and prisons. To prevent them in the first place by saying, “This is totally inappropriate behavior,” and that message can come from teachers, from community leaders, from mayors, from police chiefs, and we very much hope from the President of the United States himself.


Given what has happened to date, Michael, has ADL been going to court at all to protect people or to address criminal activity that’s taken place on the eve of or following the election?


Yeah, so we have been, I guess, spoiled by a justice department that has leaned forward. For the past eight years under Vanita Gupta, under Tom Perez, the Justice Department was the crusader in fighting against hate crimes. The most recent Matthew Shepard case involves the first transgender hate crime victim and a remedy, a conviction in that case. And that’s just incredibly important.

The number of hate crimes in America, the best barometer is the FBI. In 2015, which is the most recent data, Jim, that we have, about 6,000 hate crimes reported by about 15,000 police departments across the country. That’s about one every 90 minutes of every day.

And to respond to that effectively, we must have a signal from local community groups, from local police, from local government officials, and then from the attorney general, and the president that these crimes are serious, that they will be taken seriously and there will be an effective response when they occur.


Do you have confidence that the president’s nominee for attorney general will take his duty seriously in this respect?


His past does not indicate a commitment on these issues. He has not been a supporter of the Matthew Shepard Act. He voted against it. He’s not been a supporter of LGBT rights. He voted against the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. He’s not been in any way the kind of civil rights or hate crime response leader that we would hope that he can be.

But maybe— we’re not going to be naive going into a Jeff Sessions justice department. We will try and hold the department to the high standard that has been set by Loretta Lynch and by Eric Holder before her, in terms of the enforcement of, not just hate crime laws, but voting rights, LGBT rights, police accountability. That’s going to be hard, but I think it’s going to be something that will be a top priority for the Anti-Defamation League and for our coalition partners going forward.


Michael, thank you so much for taking the time to be with us today on Talking Justice.



Jim, thanks for the opportunity, bye.


As Michael and Amar have made clear, rights defenders are not going to just stand by as the rules of American democracy are rewritten. Though imperfect and incomplete, this country’s rhetorical commitments to diversity and tolerance run too deep to be overrun in a matter of days. But if the Trump administration’s first weeks are anything to go by, we’re in for a long struggle.

However necessary efforts of documentation and legal aid like the OSF initiative are, the spate of discriminatory violence to which they respond is unlikely to end so long as the current administration sees political advantage in sewing division along ethnic, religious, and other lines. For the foreseeable future, civil society, the media, and community organizations will bear a heavy responsibility to help hold us together by insisting on fact and evidence as the foundation for policy and public debate.

This means reporting on hate crimes and denouncing the poisonous rhetoric that spawns them. It means pointing out the absurdity of forsaking America’s history as a nation of immigrants in the name of counter terrorism. And recalling that from San Bernardino to Orlando to Times Square, many of the most heinous acts of recent years have been perpetrated or attempted by U.S. citizens.

And it means demanding that rather than pander to fear, political leaders must model a public discourse of inclusion and tolerance. Government officials from the president on down who express hostility towards Muslims or other minorities must be called out. Efforts to conflate terrorism and Islam must be condemned.

A climate of civility must be willed into being. These ambitions may seem unrealistic when the politics of anger and insecurity are so dominant. But as even a feeling look at history will attest, the struggle for human dignity is never ending. It’s just become a little more urgent today.



That’s all for Talking Justice. Until next month, I’m Jim Goldston.

Hide transcript